Gaming with Anxiety: This is Bear Country

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One of my coworkers is a huge Zelda fan. Zelda is basically her favorite video game franchise ever. And as such, she was super hyped for the announcement of a sequel to Breath of the Wild. Not all that surprising, since Breath of the Wild has become many people’s favorite Zelda game. One day she came up and asked me what I was thinking about the upcoming sequel, and what it would contain.

At which point, I sheepishly said, “Well, I’ll have a better idea after I finish the first one.”

You are probably thinking that I was a late adopter to Breath of the Wild. No, it was, in fact, the first game for the Switch I got, and one of the main reasons I wanted the Switch in the first place. You may think that, well, maybe I didn’t like the game once I got it. In fact, I like what I’ve experienced of it. I thought it was amazing, and do want to finish it up. I’m legitimately embarrassed that I haven’t beaten the game.

Bears Are Bad

There are numerous reasons why I haven’t finished the game, but a significant one is that I suffer from an anxiety disorder. And this does impede me on a day to day basis. This includes gaming, believe it or not. In most people, a little anxiety is adaptive. It’s a survival trait. It gives you a boost of energy and awareness when, for example, a bear attacks. The problem with anxiety disorders, to borrow some terminology from my therapist, is that for some reason or another (trauma, chemical imbalance, years of being in stressful environments), your threshold for what causes that state is lower, or you live closer to that threshold. And as a result, you interpret things that are relatively innocuous as a bear attack.

Most people go into Breath of the Wild, and they see this wide-open sandbox. There are a million and a half things to do and explore, and it’s super cool. It’s the biggest Zelda game that has ever been made and I was looking forward to it. I worked my way through the tutorial plateau, got into the world at large, and realised there was a lot of stuff in this game. My brain then goes into overdrive.

“I need to keep track of all these recipes, I wonder what happens if I run into one of those giant robots, should I use this weapon now or save it for an emergency, wait, there’s a side grotto, I had better go into it, how do I solve this puzzle, I’m going to run out of weapons, is that where I’m supposed to go? OH GOD, A BEAR!

Anxiety
Bear in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Source)

Breath of the Wild is a big, wonderful game with a whole bunch of things to do and check out. But because of how my brain is wired, I want to keep track of everything. Instead I start worrying and thinking too much about the game. As a result, it’s exhausting and stressful. I can only play for short periods of time and this isn’t the sort of game for that.

There is not really any actual time pressure in this game so there is no reason for me to react this way. It is designed to be explored at your leisure. The game is as big or as small as the player wants it to be. But I have come to realise I have this problem with a lot of big open-world games.

Problems Continued

It’s not the only game to give me this trouble. When Fire Emblem: Three Houses was first announced, I thought the game looked amazing enough to preorder it. I had never played a Fire Emblem game before, but several friends are huge fans of the series. The combat system looked intuitive and fun, the characters looked charming, the setting immediately gripped me. It seemed like I would be getting my money’s worth with this game.

Anxiety
Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Source)

Initially, I was managing. I finished the tutorial, not competently, but all right. Except, within the monastery, my brain started overanalyzing everything. There was too much to do.

“I have to train students while poaching students from other factions. Each Student has specific things they are naturally good at and some of them have secret things they are good at that you have to work out. Oh no, I have to make relationships with all these people, I can barely remember all of their names, wait there are other side quests in here and OH NO A BEAR.

It’s Not Every Game

Once again, it is a big game with a whole lot of things to do, and a lot of places where I felt like I could mess up the game and make it hard for myself. While I eagerly want to get back and play it, it’s another thing where it takes a lot out of me while playing. Since I didn’t feel like I was in the right headspace to currently dive headlong into the game, I wound up loaning it to some friends of mine before the pandemic struck the world.

There are some other games with complicated leveling mechanics I am fine with. The Grandia Franchise involves you upgrading several individual stats at once. Octopath Traveler, which was the other original reason that I got the Switch, involves a job system where you spend points on specific abilities. Dragon Quest 6 has a relatively simple job system, which I managed to screw up at one point, and still played through the game. And not once, in any of those games, did I feel the overwhelming sense of panic Fire Emblem: Three Houses gave me.

Stardew Valley

At this point you may be thinking, it is just the big budget AAA games which affect me. Well, it’s not that simple. Many good friends of mine, people who I regularly do projects with, adore Stardew Valley. They cite it as one of the most relaxing games in existence. Whenever they want to unwind, they travel down to the farm. They plant some things, go on some adventures, maybe have a little romance. It’s all a very simple, low-key time for them. And so, some of them got me the game, to play with them and relax a bit.

Anxiety
Stardew Valley Farming (Source)

It did not go down as planned. One of the big things about Stardew is the fact there is no time limit for anything. By design, you can explore any part of Pelican Bay you want. At no point is your farm really in danger of being repossessed or anything of that nature. The romances are easy enough to figure out once you get going. There is nothing in the town of Pelican Bay that is actively going to harm me, the player. And yet here I am.

Gaming With Anxiety

Gaming is not the biggest part of my life where anxiety causes problems. The world won’t end if I don’t play one game or another. But it is definitely a thing I find vexing. Gaming is obviously a hobby I enjoy, and my mental health issues impede that. And thus my ability to relax from all the other things that stress me out. It’s just one of those things I have to wrestle with on a daily basis. Some days are better, some days I wake up to bears.

Living with mental illness impacts every part of your life. I know it’s trite to say that, but it’s true. It impacts your relationships, your ability to work, and even your ability to enjoy your hobbies. To all you out there who may be reading this, who wrestle with these sorts of things, I want you to know that you are not alone and that it is okay to have these issues. It is not a sign of weakness, and it is not your fault. And remember, when those feelings start to come and interfere with the things you enjoy, just ask yourself, “Where’s the bear?”

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Jared Lord
Jared Lord is a cook and nutritionist in the Central US. But when he's not doing that, he enjoys writing, playing video games, and doing the acting thing. You can often see him streaming with his girlfriend and fellow columnist Heather over on twitch.tv/StarPrincessHLC, or in his friend Yorkshire Raven's Let's Plays, among many other places.

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